One can be an expert of many things, but what about becoming the world’s expert not on a particular filmmaker, a filmmaking movement or a national cinema, but on just one film? Adam Mars-Jones is a man of more than one talent: former film critic of The Independent and The Times, he is also a novelist and book reviewer, and occasionally a TV pundit, but he can also now claim surely to know Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) better than anybody else. It is not simply that Mars-Jones has written a two hundred and thirty page book on Ozu’s film, it is more especially that he applies to it a novelistic sensibility, an approach to the material that doesn’t just look at the film through close textual analysis, but also speculates on the characters’ behaviour as well, which means he has to look even more closely at the film as a consequence.
What Mars-Jones does here is assume the film isn’t a text, more a situation, and a situation which has as the central figure not so much Ozu the filmmaker, but much more Noriko the central character. It is as if the whole purpose of the book isn’t to understand the film, but to try and make sense of the character of Noriko, a woman who happens to be in her mid-twenties, and is reluctant to marry despite the subtle and not so subtle pressures of those around her. In beating a path to the character’s door, Mars-Jones decides to dismiss what for many is central to Ozu’s cinema: the question of spirituality. Taking on Paul Schrader and Donald Richie and others, ‘ringing the temple bells’ (p. 13), Mars-Jones as a writer interested in character seems a little perplexed and bemused at the attention given for example to a vase at the end of the film. Schrader reckons: ‘the vase is stasis, a form which can accept deep, contradictory emotion and transform it into an expression of something unified, permanent …The transcendental style, like the vase, is a form which expresses something deeper than itself, the inner unity of all things’ (p. 10). Richie says, ‘Primary to the experience is that in these scenes empty of all but mu [nothingness], we suddenly apprehend what the film has been about, ie. we suddenly apprehend life. This happens because such scenes occur when at least one important pattern in the picture has become clear… the vase itself means nothing, but its presence is also a space and into it pours our emotions’ (p. 11). ‘Take away the devotional incense, and most of this is amazingly weak’ (p. 12), Mars-Jones reckons. ‘This is description which could apply to most scenes in most films. The explanatory force of that because is so weak that it belongs in the warehouse next to the chocolate fireguard’ (p. 12).
The whiff of incense on Mars-Jones’ part here is more of irritation than devotion, a feeling that critics have for too long missed the wood for the trees, the animate characters for the inanimate objects. What interests Mars-Jones is the mystery that sits within the scenes, and the elliptical choices Ozu makes in the filming. ‘I don’t know what proportion of the audiences watching Late Spring over the years have noticed these elements of latent drama’ (p. 74), he says, musing over information about Noriko’s friend Aya given to us through what he calls ‘implied narrative’, but Aya’s apparent unannounced visit might seem surprising from Noriko and the viewer’s point of view, but maybe not so surprising if we work out why she might be there. As Mars-Jones notes, Aya lives in Tokyo and was presumably on the way home from the reunion that Noriko, who lives with her professor father on the outskirts of the city where the reunion took place, conspicuously didn’t attend, as she fretted over not going on a date at the same time. ‘Presumably [Aya] calls in on the professor’s house on her way home from the reunion, perhaps hoping for a bed for the night, and to see what has happened to Noriko – who has been in Tokyo all evening, being indecisive about [her date with] Hattori.’ (p. 74)
Is this pure speculation on Mars-Jones’ part, and should it also go the way of the chocolate fireguard? Mars-Jones would think not, and here we can leave aside what might be his prejudicial resistance to the spiritual, and instead focus on his interest in empirical speculation. If he has a problem with Richie and Schrader’s comments it lies in the leaps they make on what he would see as the flimsiest of evidence. If Richie’s comment on objects can apply to most scenes in most films as Mars-Jones proposes, in his comment about audiences and implied narrative Mars-Jones reckons those noticing these allusive narrative moments would be a very small number, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t reasonable evidence for the claim. ‘We’re so used to important moments being accompanied by fanfares and drumrolls, picked out with spotlights, that oblique statements can simply fail to register’ (p. 74). Hence, when during Aya’s visit Noriko admits that she is starving, Mars-Jones feels entitled to interpret this as signifying that her earlier street wandering in Tokyo represented ‘hours of indecisiveness’. Speculation is okay, he seems to be saying, as long as it is grounded in the empirical and arrives at the singular, even if it happens to be over details most people would miss. If a critic for example says that Tarkovsky is a great director of objects, then that isn’t really saying very much, but it might be saying a little more if it is grounded in concrete observation, and might be saying a whole lot more if the critic says not objects but earth and water, and perhaps finds in this interest certain small details that are easily missed but can actually contain great significance. Does good criticism not usually come from the empirical and the singular, and maybe Richie and Schrader’s comments lack in this instance that singularity and that empirical concreteness?
But what’s important to note is that Mars-Jones is not at all rejecting speculation, and though he name checks those slaves to the categorical Bordwell and Thompson more affirmatively than Schrader and Richie, he is more than happy to muse over the ‘text’ and not simply stare blankly if attentively at it. He doesn’t only note the elements of implied narrative and ellipses, he is willing to extrapolate also. When he sees that Ozu chooses not to show Hattori’s fiancé in the film, this is unequivocal fact, but he wonders what this fact serves. ‘We’re just left with the givens of the scene. Hattori’s offer with its possible shadow of impropriety, Noriko’s discomfort with its possible element of over-reaction, excessive scruple. This obscurely charged piece of byplay suggests one of two things: either she has difficulty in disentangling the sexual from the merely friendly, or he is deliberately blurring those categories.’ (p. 64-65)
If Mars-Jones’ book is of some significance it rests in its interest in emotional and motivational speculation, an area of criticism that is perhaps caught between the lowbrow and highbrow expectations of film analysis. At the lowbrow end we have performances and plot. The critic runs through the story and talks about how good an actor happens to be or how weakly they played the role. At the other end, performance is transformed into a figure in space, and the story becomes a narrative, a mode of address one is not to be sucked into but one that ought to objectively analysed. We exaggerate the case, perhaps, but not much. The consequence of this dichotomy is that many of the mysteries of film, and the reasons behind why we watch them, can get ignored. Certainly writers like Stanley Cavell have explored character ethos and Vivian Sobchack the importance of affect, but it would be a stretch to call their approach novelistic in the manner we are so describing Mars-Jones’s. Cinema is nothing if not a great lab of experimental thought and feeling, a place in which we can try out our emotions without committing to them except within the contained environment of the viewing experience.
This doesn’t mean we can’t access ‘real’ emotions, strong physiological reactions of shock, awe, fear and sadness, but they have emotional affects without any external cause and effect. We might feel shock or sadness at a character’s death, but we don’t have to buy a black tie for the funeral. In this we can agree with Kant’s notion of disinterestedness in art, explicated by Dudley Andrew in The Major Film Theories. Writing on Hugo Munsterberg he says, ‘Kant says the mind is ‘disinterested’, that is, not intent on turning this object to use, while the object is ‘isolated’, held out against all the other objects in the world. We don’t look at it to see how it can aid us, nor to find out its place in the larger scheme of things. During the aesthetic experience that object becomes for us the whole context, an end in itself, a terminal value’ (1).
Yet where many analysts take this disinterest to the point of eschewing affect and motivation and feeling, Mars-Jones is decidedly interested in these elements, and this why we propose the novelistic, and note that he searches out the situation over the text. This doesn’t mean he ignores the formal aspects of Ozu’s style, but it does mean he refuses to fetishize them. When he talks of Ozu’s breaking of the hundred and eighty degree rule or the use of the pillow-shot (a shot of an object, a train passing, a mountain or whatever that seems to still narrative rather than further it), he does so to explore the situation and not get too enamoured by the formal deviations of the text.
Is Mars-Jones right to do so? Some would think not – John Wyver reviewing the book online reckons too often Mars-Jones merely describes the plot. Yet Wyver seems to be confusing the analysis of character and story as situation, with what we believe many populist critics are doing when they review a film, as we proposed above. In such popular criticism the story is one thing, the acting another, the camerawork a third thing, and everything is merely reviewed. Mars-Jones wants not to comment on the text but to get inside the texture of situations, to utilise aspects of form only to say something about the existential dilemmas of the characters. When he comments on shot choices he often does so to muse over character behaviour and motivation, and how Ozu’s camera keeps them oblique by camera positioning or suggestively meaningful through stylistic flourish. As he says of one moment in the book, ‘It isn’t easy to decipher Noriko’s manner at this distance, but she lowers her head, perhaps in laughter, whether real or assumed’ (p. 152). At another he observes, ‘the distinctive quality of Ozu’s cinema is made up of these little contradicting ripples of narrative and feeling. He intensifies the effect when he does something that he’s famous for ‘never’ doing, such as moving the camera’ (p. 67). As Noriko’s ‘body language keeps its secrets’, we may wonder whether the camera’s movement may hint at their revelation. ‘The camera is still moving! It’s a little higher in this second shot, as if what it was undertaking was a timid experiment in hemlines.’ Mars-Jones notes that the camera is doing a lot the work here, but acknowledges this hardly makes it ‘a sequence of turbulent emotion’ (p. 68) If there is often cinematic naivety involved in ignoring the form and concentrating on character, one sometimes feels that there is merely a different form of naivety that focuses on the visual aspect to the detriment of characterisation. Noël Burch, David Bordwell and V.F. Perkins are all interesting formalist critics, but who would wish to read a novel by any of them: who goes to them to understand the inexplicability of character or situation?
The question finally isn’t so much what the critic focuses upon, but how they attend to the aspect of the film on which they’ve chosen to concentrate. Mars-Jones chooses to write on one particular Ozu film rather than the oeuvre, as a novelist would choose to concentrate on a single character without bringing in the numerous other family members, and concentrates on character over form as a novelist might who believes in describing feelings rather than scenery. There are criticisms to be made here, but the sort Wyver and others have thrown at the book seem pretty close to a category error. They have asked for a book that Mars-Jones has chosen not to write, a book that can be used in the morning in classrooms rather than beside the fire of an evening. Equally, though Paul Tickell, adding to Wyver’s post, sees Mars-Jones as yet another English literary gent given the run of the TV and film columns of the broadsheets, this seems more an attack on the type of writer Mars-Jones is perceived as rather than the writer he happens to be.
Unlike Geoff Dyer’s recent Zona, Mars-Jones’ book constantly attends to the film in question, and his deviations are often no more than belle-lettrist asides, brief remarks that uses metaphor or simile to make the point over analytic mopping up. When he talks of Robin Wood as a ‘fascinating critic who came out as gay, relatively late in life, and tried to bring as many of his favourite filmmakers with him as he could, some of them blinking with confusion in the light he shone on them’ (p. 189), it offers a fresh image. Equally when he talks about the length of shots in the film, ‘I don’t think this makes Ozu a formalist (someone for whom arbitrary patterns take precedence over mere subject matter), just someone alive to the music of editing’, (p.29-30) he again makes images out of words. If one admires visual critics like David Thomson and Robert Hughes, it isn’t for their analytic rigour but what we might call their metaphoric insight: their ability to create images of their own out of the images they see on the screen or on the canvas. Mars-Jones sometimes possesses this capacity also, but unlike many a critic who is more enamoured with their own style than the art work to hand, he doesn’t leave the film behind for admiring glances into the mirror of his prose.
Mars-Jones’ expertise here, then, is of a very narrow sort, but his interest in the inner dynamics of the film, of not only what we see, but also what we might intuit, makes for a meditative narration of Late Spring rather than simply a description of the plot. It is a variation in some way (and in others a reversal) of Manny Farber’s intentions as a film critic. Farber once reckoned central to criticism was to help the viewer “get further into the corners of the movie.” (2) Farber was of course a painter coming to film, while Mars-Jones is a novelist exploring the medium from a very different place, and thus seeking out very different corners. Yet as a consequence one isn’t so sure if writers like Mars-Jones can’t explore the feelings and spaces that Farber thought were so often left unturned: where most criticism left ‘vast swamps of unexplored argument that you could drop the whole industry through the empty spots in that criticism.’ (3) Mars-Jones here fills one of those many empty spots. It is a miniaturist manoeuvre certainly, but hardly an irrelevant one.
Adam Mars-Jones, Noriko Smiling, (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011)